Learning how to cut freehand silhouettes is a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has dabbled in or is remotely interested in art. Once the basic techniques are mastered the process of cutting a silhouette profile can take less than two minutes to perform.
What we are talking about here is a small silhouette profile cut completely freehand, with no initial drawing involved. By far, the biggest majority of silhouette profiles that are available to view, whether on line or in art stores or books, depict a head and shoulder profile only. Mastering the full length silhouette of a person is slightly trickier, and will be covered by another article.
The classic silhouette bust, framed in an oval mount is a beautiful and enchanting form of art. It is sometimes referred to as a shadow or cameo. Some silhouette artworks are produced in a size so small that they can be worn as jewellery.
This article covers the classic bust, ie, head and shoulders version of the silhouette. The finished silhouette will be no more that three inches from the top of the head to the chest. Traditionally, silhouettes are cut from special silhouette paper which can be quite difficult to source. The paper is black on one side and white on the other. It is acid free and creates a clean line when cut with scissors. By clean line I mean that no white edges are visible on the black side of the paper. Silhouette paper is not a requirement when first starting out with this art form. Any coloured paper will do. It doesn’t need to be white on one side either. If you can source some black paper which is coloured black on both sides, then this will be enough to start with.
Cut the paper into postcard size sheets. You should also cut some white paper to the same size. These sheets can then be matched up, white on black. What you then have is ready to use silhouette paper. The white side should always be facing you. This makes sense when you think about it. When cutting into black paper, it is quite difficult to follow the line that your scissors are taking.
A word about the scissors. Ideally they should be surgical quality with sharp/sharp tips. By this I mean that the tips of the scissor blades should be identical and come to a point. Some household scissors have one rounded blade. Small scissors that are used for nail trimming are ideal to start with.
Now all you need is a willing volunteer. If you are right handed ask the volunteer to turn to their left. This gives you a view of their right profile. It’s the only way that it really works for right handed people. Of course, for left handed people, the opposite applies.
Don’t worry about the statement made earlier about completing the cut in under two minutes. Take your time. Start cutting into your paper at the bottom right hand side. Hold the sheet up to eye level and carefully mimic the shape of the volunteer’s chest, details of clothing around the collar and into the neck. A trick of the trade is to turn the paper rather than rotate your wrists and scissors. Continue around the jawline and chin and up towards the mouth. Carefully measure in your mind the distances between the point of the jaw and the bottom lip. Observe whether the lips are thin or whether they are full and almost pouting. Another important measuring point is between the top lip and the turn of the nose. Also, the turn of the nose may be a gentle slope upwards or a 45 degree turn to the right. Remember the importance of turning the paper, not your wrists.
The slope on the bridge of the nose is important too. Then there is the brow. Is it deep and hooded, or is it flat and almost oriental looking? Everyone’s face has a different shape, but most profile features fall in to certain catagories. Over a period of time you will become familiar with these shapes. The brow may also slope backwards or look almost vertical. You should now be into the hairline, (If the volunteer has any that it) Here you go through the exact same procedure. Try and measure distances, especially when you reach the crown and the back of the head.
Some silhouette artist restart their cutting from the bottom left and cut the hairline and the back of the head that way. It is really up to yourself which way you tackle it. The finishing cut is usually a sloping or curved cut from the back of the shoulders down to the starting point on the chest. One important observation that you will no doubt realise by yourself eventually is that childrens’ profiles differ in many ways to adults. Especially the proportions around the front of the face and the thickness of the neck.
The finished product may not satisfy you. That is alright. Try again. You will eventually become used to ‘drawing’ with the scissors. Above all else, have fun with this and by all means study the silhouettes that the masters have created over the years.
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